Oct 22-25 Oxford
Four days in this beautiful old city that has attracted knowledge seekers into one of the 38 colleges that make up Oxford University since sometime around 1250. It has spawned countless of the world’s great thinkers and leaders and has been the breeding ground for many of the world’s great ideas. It is quite a luxury for me and the way I travel to have a longish stop in a place like this. Four nights where my things are in one place and I sleep in one bed. Four days where I can walk or ride my bike, when the mood hits, on streets where writers and academics who formed many of my values have wandered before me. I have four days and nights with very little need to do anything, but savour the atmosphere. Still, I will be out early every day. Highest on my interest list here are the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and one or two of the colleges.
The Bodleian, some 600 years old has suffered some agonies in its long life. Very few books were around 600 years ago and they were hard to come by. But it had a good start with an early donation from a wealthy patron, only to have most of its books burned during the religious fervour of the protestant reformation of King Edward VI. Another patron, Thomas Bodley who donated 2000 books in 1602, got it on track once more. Now, it is one of three British copyright libraries. A copy of all things published in Britain, some 4000 items per week, are sent and stored on the 117 miles of shelving that must be growing continually. There are now 11 million books and other published items at the Bodleian. The buildings are high on the tourist list of things to see because of the intricate carved Cotswold sandstone and the gorgeous old books still occupying the shelves of the earliest parts of the library. The claim is that some 40 Nobel Prize winners, 25 British Prime Ministers, countless authors and possibly most importantly Harry Potter and his fellow students have all passed through the Bodleian.
The Ashmolean is the oldest public museum in Britain, and second only to the British Museum in London in importance. It is a large multi-faceted museum, but I continued my approach to museums here by restricting my time to the British and European parts. I feel it is too much to try to see all of a museum of this stature. Considered the most important item in the Ashmolean is a small 9th century gold and enamelled broach inscribed “Alfred ordered me to be made”. Curious. On my few visits to museums on this trip I have been trying to connect the various stages of British history though Roman, Viking, Saxon, Norman times, but I think I have got the most new understandings about the more modern history, from the Industrial Revolution on.
The one college that I got into and toured was Christ Church Cathedral; strange name for an academic college, unless you remember that all colleges and universities at one time were associated with the church. The old Cotswold sandstone buildings are incredibly beautiful; I particular enjoy some of the intricate little caricatures carved into the hidden nooks and Crannies. Of particular interest in all colleges are the “quads”, rectangles of grass enclosed by the building and laced with pathways. One would think that students would be congregated in these quads but I only saw the odd person walking across. I had a much better tour of Durham University, in the castle where the university students lived. I never did get much of a feeling here for Oxford student life. At Christ Church however I did get to see the Dining Hall with its numerous paintings of Deans back over the centuries. Also represented on these walls is mathematics professor, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Caroll), and his famous creation Alice (as in Wonderland). More recent history is the co-opting of this Dining Hall by Hogwarths, to feed its budding magicians.
More enjoyable to me, than visiting these and other famous landmarks, was just walking or cycling the streets. There are many people on the streets. I am sure a large percentages are tourists like me, but I assume many are also students and professors or dons. A very high percentage of people here travel on bikes, which further endears the city to me. In my wanderings I stopped into quite a few coffee shops, pubs and most importantly bookstores. Some feel that Blackwells, may be the best bookstore in the world. It has both new and used books on every conceivable topic, but I think a bit higher proportion than normal bookstores might serve the academic needs of the colleges. This relaxing stay in Oxford was for me a perfect way to wind down my trip.
Oct 26-29 London
But I still had to get through London one more time before I lift off. I took the train into London so that I would not have to fight what I imagined to be 100 kms of city streets. No doubt many find ways of making a nice bike ride of this jaunt, but I never found such a route described in any of my researches. The train dropped me off in Paddington Station, about a 10 minute ride from my hotel, where I was now going to stay for the third time, this time for three nights.
On the night I arrived I took the metro to visit Farah’s niece Jaira and her husband Paul. They are a nice young couple newly arrived from Australia to try London for a while. Owen, Farah and Tatiana visited them at the end of their trip, leaving my Bike Friday suitcase. We had a nice dinner together and I pulled the empty suitcase back to my hotel. It was nice to get help from everyone on this bike problem that I had. Bill who packed Friday, Owen and family who brought it to Edinburgh and then took the empty suitcase to London where Jaira and Paul looked after it for the weeks it took me to get there.
In London I could not resist cycling around for a day, but I never left the bike for long at any point. Getting a second bike nicked would be quite devastating. I had a nice visit at Tate Britain, where I saw many Henry Moores, possibly my favourite sculptor. And I visited a number of… yes you guessed it, bookstores. The best travel book store I have seen is called Daunt Books and the main Waterstone store is purportedly the largest in Britain with a quarter of a million books. I whiled away a lot of enjoyable time in these two stores working on ideas for my next trip, among other things.
This fascination with British bookstores was not something I anticipated. Although I guess it could be predicted, given that I am drawn to bookstores wherever I go. And you might guess, given its position as the source of the English language and the incredible number of authors over the years that their bookstores would be exceptional. I certainly found it so. I didn’t buy a lot of books, given my luggage restrictions, but I certainly did a lot of looking and now that I am home there are many books that I wish I had found space to bring.
I guess I should submit a final report on one area that was of interest, top of mind, while I was preparing to go on this trip. The Pubs. My objective was to see if the pubs were still a mainstay of the British culture. I think that I can categorically say …“Yes”. There are still pubs everywhere, they are very attractive, many are very lively, and the beer and food are good, sometime exceptional. The British attend pubs in large numbers almost everywhere I went. Someone in every pub will have a dog on the seat beside him or under his table drinking water from a bowl provided by the pub. There will be families with small children. These are just two of the factors that make British Pubs more a part of everyday life than those in my country. Most enjoyable to me were the pubs in the countryside, often a part of the Inn where I was staying. But the city pubs would be great if it’s evening entertainment you are looking for, or if you are after a business lunch or watching some game on TV with other fans. I set out with the goal of visiting 50 pubs. I think I hit 70, some more than once. Yes the pubs are great.
I am now home, attempting to get over my jet lag, building on the travel research I began in Britain and planning my next trip.